Down With Efficiency! (When We Get Around to It.)

We are no longer achieving an acceptable level of whimsy. In even the smallest corners of daily life, we are asked to abandon delicious inefficiencies — the archaic flights of fancy, the capricious nonsense — in favor of a totalizing commitment to the false idols of logic, regularity and efficacy.

It is time, in a disorganized and utterly decentralized way, to fight back. Away with the metric system; not only should we keep up with inches and miles — who needs the cold logic of 10s that can be found in metric? — but we should also return units like the barleycorn, the furlong, the drachm and the fluid scruple (composed, naturally, of 20 minims) to common usage. De-decimalize not just the U.S. dollar but every currency. And let’s stop blasting holes in mountainsides — just let the damn road have a few switchbacks.

Our society is hooked on efficiency. People work to optimize their lives, multitasking every possible activity, looking to force every possible minute out of the day to be productive, turning hobbies into “side hustles” — and from this they suffer. That much, many seem to know. But do they realize how they also suffer from standardized plurals, from oh-so-easy math and from the abandonment of the little joys of an existence filled with unnecessary journeys down the side paths of life? “Was tennis not the same game it had been then?” the writer Jean Stafford asked in 1952. “Why did it seem, today, so much faster?” There is a joy in slowness and inefficiency, in lazily lofting the ball over the net rather than blasting it down the sideline.

That’s why pastimes and lifestyles that eschew more efficient options are resurgent. “Luddite” teens reject smartphones and Google Calendar invites. Vinyl record sales are exploding, the act of placing a disc upon a turntable preferred to the ease of tapping Play on a music streaming service’s meticulously engineered app interface. Renewed interest in film photography is so acute that some retailers are hiding rolls of film behind the counter to avoid theft; not so memory cards for digital cameras.

There is a whimsy in those lifestyle choices and hobbies, a whimsy in doing things the roundabout way. It is simple enough to argue that the most direct path is the best one, but humanity doesn’t really work like that. As a species, we learn by doing — and often enough, we find joy in it. Taking the time to master a skill, to understand a process or to have a conversation — even if it isn’t quite as fast — is consistently more rewarding than having something simply done for you. Efficiency-focused single-mindedness might make things faster, but it is a thief of life’s joys.

If the point of all this — state, trade, industry, culture, society writ large — is well-being and joy, making lives better, then, as often as may be, it should work on a human scale, embracing the winding trails of life over the direct highway bulldozed through the mountainside. That’s not to say there is no place for efficiency, but to govern people, who are by nature not particularly efficient, with too heavy a bias toward simply getting things done is doubtless a well-intentioned mistake. Our government should be as strange as we are, more or less.

If the state exists to improve the lives of the governed, and the lives of the governed are bettered not by robotic, quasi-fascistic insistence on efficiency über alles, then the state, too, must embrace a more laid-back style. There’s no need to establish a Department of Capriciousness or a National Whimsy Agency; indeed, either would only strive far too efficiently to establish inefficiency. Rather, we can make little tweaks. Eliminating the decimalization of currencies would be a start. Bringing back cavalry cuirasses and epaulets in the military would be a fitting second step. Perhaps the Department of Education could encourage unique scholastic scarves and oddball traditions at every institution that receives its funding.

Of course, this isn’t likely. The nature of business and government is to prize efficiency, to value cost saving and corner cutting and results-focused thinking (or whatever the consultants call it). But even outside of the sheer joy of taking a moment longer to perform a task — to take a longer trip home because you’d rather see the sun set over the bridge, to set the vinyl record carefully on the turntable instead, to visit your local takeout place and chat with the cashier in lieu of punching an order for 47 dumplings into an app — there is a beauty and (dare I say it) usefulness to inefficiency.

Inefficiency is generative; inefficiency is where we source our ideas, our inspirations, our conceptions of a world of endless paths and journeys rather than one of monotonous drudgery occupied only in repetitive labor. A life whimsically lived, a society whimsically (dis)ordered, is one that promotes freedom of thought, even as it knows many of the freely found thoughts won’t be all that useful.

So next time I want some takeout, I’ll walk two furlongs and seven chains to the local Indian joint, place my order with the cashier directly, be annoyed that I can’t pay in a de-decimalized currency, and then sit and wait for an hour while they prioritize the Grubhub app-based orders over mine.

Parker Richards (@ParkerTRichards) is a staff editor for Times Opinion.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Related Articles

Back to top button